Commentary

Difficult Conversations About Race

Nov 17, 2016

On Wednesday, I attended a conference put on by the Billie Jean King Leadership Initiative, an extraordinary non-profit organization dedicated to fostering inclusive leadership. It was filled with panels and people who are working diligently to help organizations of all sizes do a better job encouraging people to be fully human at work. The entire day gave me hope.

The last session was a series of interactive theater pieces put on by the diversity training organization, DeValk Associates. As an introvert, I typically dread things like this, but it turned out to be compelling in ways I didn’t expect.

The actors ticked through scenarios about race and power in the corporate workplace, many of which were disturbingly familiar. Here’s the one that hit a nerve: A white mother shows up to work worried about how her two mixed-race kids were going to respond to a racial violence incident in the television news. Her white male supervisor woodenly offers a few of words of comfort, then whiffed the attempt. Everyone squirmed. The actor playing the supervisor later revealed in a “thought bubble” aside to the audience that he feared conversations like this because “he’d made some mistakes talking about this stuff in the past.” The whole thing felt like a minefield to him. A lively conversation ensued.

But another performer on stage, an Asian woman who had artfully played a more empathetic colleague, told the audience that she had felt hurt that her ability to relate to the white mother’s fear had gone unnoticed by us. She shared that as an Asian woman, she frequently felt overlooked on the subject of race and that her real experiences of discrimination, though different from those of black people, were routinely dismissed. She felt invisible, a lot. “I’m a person of color, too,” she said while wiping away tears.

It took a moment for the crowd to absorb that this was not part of the act and that the performance had become so real to her, that it felt like her actual life. Want to get the attention of a room full of people who have dedicated their lives to inclusion? Tell them you feel left out. It took courage for her to share those feelings and humility to take them in.

Now, we all wear masks at work. And we all have a constant inner dialog running on how we’re feeling about how we’re being perceived. But the performances - including her real tears - were powerful reminders that inclusive leadership requires turning that inner dialog into real world conversations that can bring people closer together.

These conversations may be more art than science, but there’s plenty of new science that promises to help. Vox has published a great piece highlighting some of the best research on how to talk about race or gender issues, and I highly recommend it. (Hint: Calling people racists doesn’t work.)

But mastering the skill of difficult conversations, as both a speaker and listener, requires patience, openness, forgiveness, resilience, and courage. And lots of time. I wish each and every one of you all of that and more.

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